Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Calle 13, Glasvegas, Guns N' Roses, Nine Inch Nails and More
Fall Out Boy's Folie Deux is Dud of the Month

As promised, this Consumer Guide works its way through a great many rock bands, with rewarding (and sometimes surprising) results and nothing like closure. There are plenty of other things going on, as next month's edition will reveal in good time. But smart young guys and gals making loud music with guitars are very much with us, and if you sift carefully they're worth hearing.


Calle 13: Los de Atras Vienen Conmigo (Norte) You don't have to speak Spanish to conclude that this arty, political San Juan rap duo deserve their rocketing reputation--I sure can't, though when I squint at the booklet my puny recognition vocabulary helps. But you do have to immerse and concentrate--and accept that you'll miss most of what's going on even then. They're reggaeton only by association, a lot further from Daddy Yankee's hey-mami dancehall than the Roots were from Dr. Dre's jeep-pimping funk. By all accounts and the little I can work out, their lyrics are playfully associative and outrageously filthy. But for gringos, their humor resides almost entirely in Visitante's out-there arrangements and Residente's overt vocal comedy, as on the Balkanized "Fiesta de Locos." If some promotional visionary were to provide trots, that might change. But as it is, big guests Caf Tacuba and Ruben Blades are too mainstream to launch Calle's 2008 model into the surrealist stratosphere. B PLUS

Calle 13: Residente o Visitante (Norte) Start here, partly to benefit from the online discussion this album has inspired over two years--cf. allthelyrics.com's takeout on the Rabelaisian "Uiyi Guaye"--but mostly to delve into sardonic sonics that hint at what Tom Z might have gone for if he'd come up on OutKast and Eminem instead of the Beatles and the Stones. From mock-operatic intro to mock-rock finale, the music is disruptive fun throughout. Latin-flavored yet light on salsa clav and reggaeton dembow, it sharpens the lyrics so that sometimes a single word can make you nod or smile while its context remains a mystery. A MINUS

Glasvegas: Glasvegas (Columbia) Not a brother band--a cousin band, possibly inbred. For sure there's something hillbilly insular about their ties to Glasgow's Dalmarnock hood. But like Dolly Parton bringing her mountain home to Nashville, they churn out big, corny, mass-appeal heart songs, with subjects including knife fights, fatherless children, and--really--how your social worker won't let you down. Where you'd think ex-footballer James Allan would propel this material with Mick Hucknall soul or maybe Proclaimers purism, his musical ideal is elegiac Jesus and Mary Chain noise-punk, which cleansed of the Reid brothers' junkie dissolution approaches Righteous Brothers grandeur. Innocent and confident, this is one of those bands that could fall on its face or take over the world. They're too good to be true and plain as the nose on your face. A

Guns N' Roses: Chinese Democracy (Geffen) Hopeless eccentric spends most of his adult life and a large chunk of his ill-gotten fortune trying to make the perfect album. Succeeds, kind of, on his own totally irrelevant terms. Nobody cares. Since he's no longer capable of leading young white males astray, this effort isn't just pleasurable artistically. It's touching on a human level. Noble, even. I didn't think he had it in him. B PLUS

Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts I-IV (The Null Corporation) Two hours of electronic instrumentals by the ranking genius of studio S&M? Despite respectful reviews, I shied away, only to be put off when I finally approached by a deliberate piano intro that turns out to be its most annoying moment. Finer minds than mine may find these pieces worthy of continuous attention. I say they're background music, there waiting when your mind drifts speakerward, just distracting enough to change up your mood in a useful way. Moved to revisit Brian Eno's Discreet Music, I can attest that when I need mental wallpaper, I'll take Trent's. But I don't need mental wallpaper all that much. A MINUS

Jay Reatard: Blood Visions (In the Red) Memphis boy Jay Lindsey skipped high school and ignored hallowed local traditions while generating the 10 years of garage-punk outfits, one-offs, and seven-inches that fed into this 2006 solo debut. Manhandling all the instruments on 15 songs in 30 minutes, he bashes out a sloppy Ramones homage that gets the New Yorkers' tune-smart momentum without finding much comedy in "My family they never knew" or "See you in the park/See you doing well." As the Ramones discovered and Jay came in knowing, this trick is harder than scoffers will ever understand, and there's no reason to think he'll ever try it again. There's also no reason to think he'll ever learn how to spell S-T-A-X. A MINUS

Jay Reatard: Matador Singles '08 (Matador) Arranged chronologically in order of recording and release, these five two-sided singles, one three-song mini-EP, and one split seven-inch cohered better in their original formats--in sequence, the internally consistent comic-book gothic "Trapped Here"/"Hiding Hole"/"DOA" and sad-sack romance "No Time"/"You Were Sleeping" undercut rather than augment each other. It's not like Reatard is up to the level of classic Buzzcocks or something--his real but inconsistent pop gift can use a little shaping. So this hodgepodge will grow in meaning if he gets it together and sink from memory if he doesn't. B PLUS

Sleeping in the Aviary: Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Hotel (Science of Sound) What dewy tenderfeet get from Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, the weathered gimp who writes this column gets from Vernon's fellow Wisconsinite Elliott Kozel. Kozel leads actual band members, second fiddle though their bass-drums-accordion/saw may play, and sings like a 14-year-old freaked out by the frog in his throat rather than an angel choking his monkey. Informed by two untimely deaths as well as a Kanye-like combo of ailing mother and fractured romance, Kozel is feeling his mortality more concretely than the average young guy struck by the fact that 25 years equals a quarter of a century. Over a bereft, sardonic, punky power strum, he spins out songs that evoke the nearness of death and the fragility of romance all the more suggestively for not being quite literal about either, which is rarely how it works with tenderfoot image-slingers these days. First he's running around with his girl in the ground, then he's helping his mom with her shot. Both ways he feels terribly alone but knows he isn't. A MINUS

The So So Glos: Tourism/Terrorism (Green Owl) In which a Brooklyn brother band live out their fantasy that Mick Jones took over the Clash and began writing Joe's songs. Rid of its carefully inserted "20-0-8," "My Block" could have been the beloved B-side of "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais": "The rich kids in the hungry neighborhoods out looking for something to eat," exactly. Elsewhere on this nine-song, 27-minute EP they're woozier, which isn't to say less punk. Be glad they're young enough to learn that there are only so many times you can swear your 40 will never turn into a cappuccino before the future bites you in the ass anyway. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • MGMT: Oracular Spectacular (Columbia) Like Vampire Weekend, only as synth-dance rather than indie-rock, they convert a quality liberal education into thoughtful, anxious, faux-lite pop ("Kids," "Time to Pretend").
  • Frightened Rabbit: The Midnight Organ Fight (FatCat) Earnest Glasgow brother band share their pain and add a song to the casual-sex canon ("Keep Yourself Warm," "My Backwards Walk").
  • Juaneco y Su Combo: Juaneco y Su Combo (Barbes) Imagine the Ventures playing pan-cultural South American pop in the psychedelic '70s--only really poky, say ("Ya Se a Muerto Mi Abuelo," "El Hijo de la Runamula").
  • Menya: Puss Coital (no label) They [heart] Philly gurls' cheesesteaks--eat them too ("Philly Gurls," "Diana [Heart U]").
  • El Goodo: Coyote (Grease) Pitch-perfect, undiluted by irony, Welshmen re-create the folk-pop '60s, and if the Hollies sometimes made better albums, the Association never did ("Aren't You Grand," "Don't Worry Marie").
  • Okkervil River: The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar) Will Sheff should stop worrying about what a star he is, or isn't, or doesn't want to be, or . . . --normal obscurity is within his means, I swear it ("Lost Coastlines," "On Tour With Zykos").
  • Kathy Mattea: Coal (Captain Potato) Living songs about the power of blackness and the illusory allure of green ("The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore," "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive").
  • Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (Anti-) Gosh--at 50, he's almost Dylanesque for blessed moments, plus he utters the welcome words "Bukowski was a jerk" ("We Call Upon the Author," "More News From Nowhere").
  • Jay Reatard: Singles 06-07 (In the Red) Several of the best songs here aren't even the best songs on "Blood Visions," and then there's the momentum thing ("Let It All Go," "Hammer I Miss You").
  • Kaiser Chiefs: Off With Their Heads (Universal/Motown) Funnier and simpler, they earn their snark ("Never Miss a Beat," "Addicted to Drugs").
  • Brian Wilson: That Lucky Old Sun (Capitol) Born-again optimist's L.A. even has Mexicans in it ("Southern California," "Morning Beat").
  • The So So Glos: The So So Glos (Green Owl) Like toddlers, born punks believe falling down is how you get where you're going ("We Got the Days," "99 Degrees").
  • D.O.A.: Northern Avenger (Sudden Death) "Time has marched along, punks have changed, some are gone/Some have vision and some are gray, some have just been born" ("Golden State," "Last Chance").
  • Franz Ferdinand: Tonight (Domino) They've got a question for us--where will we be in five minutes' time? ("What She Came For," "Live Alone").
  • H Is for Hellgate: Come for the Peaks, Stay for the Valleys (Scissor City Sound) Woman tells her bitter truths, which her guitar elaborates, or is it challenges? ("Pretty, Pretty Princess," "Blood").
  • Times New Viking: Rip It Off (Matador) Moderately smart lo-fi punk lyrics await your magnifying glass, moderately cute lo-fi punk tunes await your shovel ("Faces on Fire," "[My Head]").
  • Tom Breiding: The Unbroken Circle: Songs of the West Virginia Coalfields (AmeriSon) Entering new songs in the musical-historical record--without, unfortunately, the bitter jokes I bet they tell there to this day ("Union Miner," "The Longest Darkest Day").

Choice Cuts

  • Chairlift, "Bruises," "Garbage" (Does You Inspire You, Kanine)
  • H Is for Hellgate, "The Next 50 Winters," "Belt of Light," "Soundtrack to the Summer" (H Is for Hellgate, Stereotype)
  • Eagles of Death Metal, "Wannabe in L.A.," "Anything 'Cept the Truth" (Heart On, Downtown)
  • Kaiser Chiefs, "Retirement" (Yours Truly, Angry Mob, Universal)
  • Tab the Band, "Sallie Mae Wilcox: Ramblings of a Suitor" (Long Weekend, North St.)

Dud of the Month

Fall Out Boy: Folie Deux (Island) Admittedly, the two classic lines Pete Wentz comes up with here--"Imperfect boys with their perfect lives" and the cheeky Nirvana cop "I don't care what you think as long as it's about me"--reflect the new thematic legitimacy of superstar self-pity in an era when fans would rather envy their musical heroes than identify with them. But that doesn't mean non-fans should feel obliged to get with the program. Low-tune for a pop band, low-momentum for a rock band, they stand a chance of evoking bad Elvis Costello when they take you by surprise or emote on in the background. In fact, when Mr. C. himself makes a shock-horror guest appearance, he's surprisingly hard to tell from Patrick Stumpf. Which is weird, disturbing--especially for Mr. C. B MINUS

More Duds

  • The Band of Heathens: The Band of Heathens (BOH)
  • Bloc Party: Intimacy (Atlantic)
  • Gym Class Heroes: The Quilt (Fueled by Ramen)
  • The Killers: Day & Age (Island)
  • The Last Shadow Puppets: The Age of the Understatement (Domino)
  • Mudcrutch: Mudcrutch (Warner Bros.)
  • The Offspring: Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace (Columbia)
  • Secret Machines: Secret Machines (TSM)
  • Dennis Wilson: Pacific Ocean Blue: Legacy Edition (Sony Legacy)

MSN Music, February 2009


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